If I would want to imagine someone lugging a book around everywhere he went, I would picture a medical school student cramming for the boards, a law student studying for the bar, or (most likely, personally) a rabbinic student studying for a semicha exam. Sometimes someone will carry a book around as they go about their daily, non-studious business so they can take advantage of an unexpected opportunity to prepare for their upcoming test. But generally speaking, if a person isn’t taking an exam, they will leave their reading material at home. In this context, the Torah contains a fascinating law about the Jewish Head of State. In the passage that describes the responsibilities and limitations of a king of Israel, it says:
“It shall be that when he sits on the throne of his kingdom, he shall write for himself two copies of this Torah in a book…It shall be with him; and he shall read from it all the days of his life (Devarim 17:18-19).”
It continues to explain that these scrolls will ensure that his reign will be long-lasting because they will remind him to fear the Almighty, uphold the Torah, and not become haughty. Rashi (1040 – 1105) explains that only one of these books would sit on a shelf: The king would keep one in the royal treasury, but the other he would have to keep with him at all times. In ancient Israel, the archetypical person schlepping a book around was not the medical school student, but none other than his majesty the king himself.
There is one verse regarding the king and his Torah books that requires further explanation. Why does the Torah say that he shall “read from it all the days of his life?” It could simply say that he should carry it around and read it all the time. Why is this instruction phrased in a way that brings the days of his life into focus?
Rabbi Nosson Zvi Finkel (1849 – 1927 , known as the Alter of Slabodka), educator par excellence and founder of the Slabodka Yeshiva, offered a novel and non-literal but insightful interpretation of this verse that alleviates this difficulty. The Torah is not saying that the king must constantly be reading his personal Torah. That may be true, but what the Torah means by this phrase is that he should turn to the Torah for guidance on how to live. “He shall read from it all the days of his life” means that he should read the Torah and look for wisdom that will be pertinent to the life-circumstances that he encounters each day. The king should never feel like he must re-invent the wheel. He should look for practical guidance that will tell him how to approach whatever challenge or opportunity may arise. That will empower him to make effective choices, maintain his righteousness, and reign long and successfully.
Each of us has our own intuition, experience, and seichel that we can count on to lead us on the right path in life. It is crucial to realize, however, that we must have the humility to seek a “second opinion.” The message of the King of Israel’s Torah that he always cradled in his arms is that we must not neglect to check our own thinking. We must partner our own assessment of a challenging situation or decision with the council of mentors, colleagues, and friends in general, and with the wisdom of Torah literature in particular. We may then merit to be included to in the King’s blessing of success that his portable Torah scroll brings him “all the days of his life.”